WASHINGTON — You would never realize how big the stakes are in Tuesday’s winner-take-all Florida Republican primary if you judged only the behavior of the leading presidential candidates these last few days.
Their final pre-primary debate w as bland to the point of apathy. Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and even iconoclastic Ron Paul were on their best behavior — as if oblivious to what the 57 delegates available in Florida could mean to anyone who pulls out a plurality victory.
A win could establish either McCain or Romney as the man to beat in the massive round of Feb. 5 primaries. It could launch Giuliani into a late rush for the nomination, wiping out his weak showing in the earlier contests. And an upset by Huckabee would force an upper revision in his prospects, which have been diminished since he surprised the field in Iowa.
But their televised confrontation in Boca Raton on Thursday was haunted by the spirit of the departed Fred Thompson. It was as if the actor and former senator had left a blanket of boredom behind when he exited the race after finishing third behind McCain and Huckabee in South Carolina.
The big Tennessean departed so quickly and quietly it was hard to remember the trumpet fanfares that had greeted his entry into the race as the last of the “major contenders” to announce.
My personal experience with Thompson illuminated one of the real puzzles of the past year. Last summer, as word circulated that he was about to join the campaign, a member of his staff phoned with an invitation to lunch.
I readily accepted because I had not interviewed Thompson since he left the Senate in 2003. We met at a restaurant in McLean, Va., and the candidate arrived by himself, with no press aide in tow.
We visited for two hours and he answered every question, outlining plans for a campaign that would be notable for its boldness. Repeatedly, he emphasized that the only reason he saw to run was to raise issues that the other candidates were too timid to address. Those issues, he said, included the need to expand military manpower and increase the Pentagon budget, while attacking the “unaffordable” entitlement programs that dominate domestic spending.
Thompson was particularly critical of farm subsidies, and when I asked if he were really going to take that message to Iowa, he said, “Yes, but I’d like to keep that off the record until I announce out there.” I agreed to omit that detail from my column, but reported that he was going to enter the race with rhetorical guns blazing, and that was his reason for running.
Then I sat back and waited — and waited. In time, Thompson unveiled a serious proposal to attack the long-term deficits in Social Security — another of the major entitlements. But I never heard the speech on the farm subsidies. When I asked for a follow-up interview with Thompson, his new press secretary found reasons to put me off.
Would a bolder campaign delivered with some of the personal passion I saw in Thompson at that lunch have produced a different result? I don’t know, but given what he said about his own motives, I suspect Thompson would feel better today if he had followed his own instincts instead of becoming a more conventional conservative.
That is a lesson for those remaining in the race. As the competition moves beyond Florida, a state with complex constituencies, to an even more diverse national background stretching from California to Connecticut, there will be a temptation to be all things to all people.
You can expect Paul, as a libertarian, to resist the efforts to blend into the crowd, but the temptation to put on camouflage will certainly be there for the others.
The closer the survivors of this shakedown process come to securing the nomination, the greater the pressure to smooth the edges of their beliefs and personalities.
We are at the point where this GOP campaign will become a real test of character.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.